I recently spoke with Vincent Adinolfi, an indie designer working on a game called Heartworm. It’s low-poly 3D survival horror, so when he brought up influences like Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and even Dino Crisis, that was to be expected. But then he mentioned Valve’s classic 1998 FPS. “I’ve tried to take cues from games like Half-Life in the way that Valve uses environment design to naturally develop the narrative,” he says. It’s not the first time I’ve heard developers namecheck Half-Life while making games very different to it. Its effect on the way games tell stories transcends genres. Which is surprising given how few other 1990s shooters even had stories.
John Carmack of id famously said stories are as irrelevant to games as they are to porn, which explains Quake. Sure, adventure games and RPGs might need plots, but what does an FPS have to gain? When Half-Life proved even a game about shooting zombies could be improved with a memorable story, it made the point for everyone. And it did it without cutscenes or a single paragraph of text. Mainly, it did it through Black Mesa.
Half-Life’s writer Marc Laidlaw once explained on his blog that Half-Life was initially planned to be a nonlinear game. That all changed because, as he put it, “All narrative forms of drama, but especially horror, rely on pacing and rhythm. In horror timing is crucial. You have to set up your traps just so, and wait until your victim is precisely in position.”
While previous shooters had elements of horror – Doom had a chainsaw and shotgun because id were fans of Evil Dead II – the games were never horror themselves. They were action in Halloween clothes.
The first third of Half-Life is, as Laidlaw says, explicitly horror. There’s the slow burn, where we’re introduced to the characters at their most mundane, though with teasing hints of what may be about to go wrong. Then we see their ordinary world turned upside down, made dark and broken. Just like Alien, or Night of the Living Dead, or It.
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